Don’t scrap GCSEs and A-levels, just spend time improving them

Lauren Taylor and Matthew Garrard with their GCSE results at the Smithdon High School in Hunstanton

Lauren Taylor and Matthew Garrard with their GCSE results at the Smithdon High School in Hunstanton - Credit: Archant

Douglas Robb, headmaster of Gresham's School, says calls to scrap GCSEs and A-levels are wrong

The question of whether GCSEs and A-levels remain fit for purpose raised its head recently when Robert Halfon, Conservative MP, former skills minister, and chair of the parliamentary education committee, addressed a meeting at The Edge Foundation. He was discussing the value and purpose of technical or vocational education, and it is unfortunate that within the resulting media coverage the breadth of his thinking around this complex issue was distilled down to a headline about GCSEs and A-levels.

I agree with Mr Halfon that it is vital we improve perceptions of technical education but I do not agree that we need to do so at the expense of GCSEs or A-levels. Our education system should have a gold standard path for everyone, not just for the most academically able.

I do not agree with Mr Halfon and other protagonists who say our existing qualifications are not fit for purpose. But I think we need to examine what the purpose of education today is and, within this, ensure that young people who may be less academically inclined are able to access a strong vocational offer, that's properly invested in.

T-levels have been a welcome development in the discussion about vocational-based qualifications, but we urgently need to move away from the stigma associated with vocational qualifications if they are to succeed. Importantly, we also need to address the core issue of resourcing - with so little funding available, I do not know how schools will manage to deliver T-levels.

Too often we hear politicians talking about education as the major factor for determining economic growth. This conjures images of education as the coal that fuels our economy, and nothing more. It is this mindset and belief that narrows the scope of education, promotes subjects outside of the core EBacc as peripheral luxuries. This puts our education system remains completely out of sync with all other countries in the developed world.

Is it a bad thing that a surgeon understands and has a passion for literature or for music? Absolutely not. Is there any point in an investment banker enjoying novels in their spare time? Of course, there is - reading, music, art, languages, all make us better people and enrich our lives.

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So, while I do not agree with the concept of scrapping our existing qualifications, that's not to say that they can't be improved, and I would welcome a governmental review of our system on this basis so that we don't narrow young people's education too young.

Mr Halfon talked about adoption of a 'holistic baccalaureate' to replace existing qualifications. As a professional educator, I'm not sure what a 'holistic' baccalaureate is, but I know that the International Baccalaureate (IB) is brilliant and if we can offer something that requires students to continue to study a broader range of subjects post-16 than just three A-levels, in the way that the IB does, we will be greatly enriching our education system. We should require everyone to study six subjects, including Maths, English and modern foreign languages until they are 18, so that they do not bitterly regret in future years the subjects they dropped so early on.

The narrowing of subject choices to three at 16 also puts pressure on teachers to deliver the right guidance and advice but who is to say what the right choice is for a young person at this stage? As teachers, all we can do is create subject blocks and patterns to help young people choose subjects that will direct them towards achieving a particular career goal.

But, I know many 16-year-olds who have changed their minds by the time they are 18 or 20.